Belatedly, but thankfully, the Vermont Attorney General’s office has finalized an agreement between the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers (VAST) and the state regarding the forward development of the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail. The agreement should accelerate the completion of the trail, arguably one of the most compelling recreational assets in northern Vermont.
The proposed 93-mile trail has been considered, debated, planned for, and litigated for decades. It’s always been a puzzle why something so profoundly beneficial would be so difficult. Be that as it may, the various parties have had their say, the bureaucratic obstacles have been minimized, and a completed project looks within our reach.
When finished, it will be the longest rail trail in New England.
This is a big deal. Here are the towns it would touch: Swanton, Sheldon, Fairfield, Bakersfield, Fletcher, Cambridge, Johnson, Morristown, Hardwick, Greensboro, Stannard, Walden, Cabot, Danville, and St. Johnsbury.
Almost a third of the trail is in Franklin County. Next spring construction begins in Swanton with plans to take the trail to Sheldon, which is 11.6 miles. The following year, construction will take the trail from Sheldon to Cambridge, which is 18.4 miles. When that is completed, it will connect with the 17.4 miles that are already open from Cambridge to Morristown.
Two years from this spring, we should have a 47.4-mile trail at our disposal. All 93 miles are to be completed by 2021.
That gives Franklin County two significant rail trails. The Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail, which is 26.1 miles, runs from St. Albans [just outside The Messenger ’s door] to Richford. The Lamoille Valley Rail Trail [within Franklin County] will run from Swanton to Cambridge in Lamoille County, with just less than 30 or so miles within our county.
That puts us at the intersection of the state’s two most significant rail trails. And it creates a substantial opportunity to market ourselves as a progressive, healthy place to live. Rail trails, which are places to run, bike, walk, etc., are seen as a key enmity for families and businesses looking for places to locate. They are magnets for cyclists looking for places to ride.
And relatively speaking, the cost of building a rail trail is peanuts. The VAST organization is trying to put together a $3 million public fundraising effort to complete and maintain the trail.
Three million dollars is roughly what it costs to build a single mile of a two-lane road in Vermont.
The cost-benefit ratio would be off the charts. With even the most urgent marketing efforts, that three million dollars would be returned in increased recreational spending. Recreation in Vermont is a $2.5 billion industry and about a third of our visitors come during the summer and fall, when the paths would be most utilized.
These are the sorts of investments that bring enormous returns to the state and to the individual counties [and towns] that host them. This is what helps bring life to the rural parts of environs.
It’s a no-brainer.
Governor Phil Scott and U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy were in Hardwick Thursday to announce Northern Border Regional Commission (NBRC) grants designed to make vital infrastructure improvements, invest in job-creating technical assistance programs, and help businesses and organizations from Franklin to Caledonia Counties.
Vermont Association of Snow Travelers (VAST) received a grant of $200,000 to undertake repairs and construction along the Lamoille Valley rail bed, which runs 11.6 miles from Sheldon to Swanton, expanding VAST’s four-season recreational and heritage trail called the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail.
"The Northern Border Regional Commission has a unique role as a federal-state partnership to convene the leaders of four northern border states, identify common challenges, and put resources towards efforts to address those challenges," said Scott. "These grants aim to help our forest-based economies, our emerging agricultural entrepreneurs, and the communities they depend upon to make investments in themselves – creating new opportunities for Vermonters. This is incredibly valuable to our efforts to grow Vermont’s economy, and I want to thank our Congressional Delegation for supporting this program."
Each year, the NBRC provides federal funds to encourage regional, collaborative and transformative community economic development approaches that alleviate economic distress and position the region for economic growth. The Commission is comprised of five voting members including a federal co-chair and the governors of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York. Vermont’s Congressional Delegation – Leahy, U.S. Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) – have been instrumental in increasing the funding for the program ten-fold in the past 10 years, enabling Vermont to increase its share of grants.
Leahy, Vice Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said: “These federal funds will serve as a catalyst for economic development in northern Vermont. They will make businesses stronger, home ownership more affordable, and increase opportunities for tourism and outdoor recreation. This type of federal-state-local partnership is a demonstration of how all levels of government can work together to help rural economies."
"Too often, rural America has been left behind when it comes to economic development, which is why the resources provided through the Northern Border Regional Commission are so important,” said Senator Sanders. “The projects funded today – in areas ranging from business development to infrastructure improvement – will have significant positive economic and social benefits across northern Vermont. This is an example of a successful federal-state partnership that provides critical funding for innovative projects in some of the most economically-challenged regions of our state."
“The Northern Border Regional Commission has played a vital role in spurring development in some of Vermont’s most economically-challenged communities,” said Congressman Welch. “Its success demonstrates that providing seed money to boost local economic development projects not only sparks local economic activity, but also lays the groundwork for long-term investment in the region. These grants will grow the economy and have a measurable impact on the lives of Vermonters.”
Scott and Leahy were joined by NBRC Federal Co-Chair Mark Scarano during Thursday's announcement. “Thanks to Vermont’s resolute Congressional Delegation and Governor Scott’s able economic development team, the NBRC federal-state partnership’s grants will provide funds for critical economic development and infrastructure projects in some of Vermont’s most distressed regions,” said Scarano. “I was particularly impressed by the thoughtfulness and potential impact of all of this year’s NBRC applications from Vermont."
In a competitive application process, a total of 11 grants were awarded from among a pool of 30 worthy applicants. VAST is pleased to be the recipient of one of the larger of these grants, which will help the organization to leverage future funding toward the completion of the 93-mile Lamoille Valley Rail Trail. The LVRT is a popular all-season recreational and nature appreciation opportunity for hiking, biking, horseback riding, snowmobiling, dog-sledding, and cross-country skiing that draws people from all across the state of Vermont as well as visitors from states as far away as Texas.
Cindy Locke, Executive Director of the Vermont Association
of Snow Travelers released the following statement today.
In a letter sent out by the Vermont Natural Resources Board (NRB) in part the following was stated:
"Recently, VAST filed a suit with the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB-- an independent adjudicatory and economic-regulatory agency charged by Congress with resolving railroad rate and service disputes and reviewing proposed railroad mergers) arguing that the LVRT Project is preempted. Once VTrans and the NRB became aware of the suit, we contacted the Vermont Attorney General’s office for advice, and for representation in the pending matter before the STB. After considerable review of the matter, and the controlling preemption law, the AG’s office has advised that litigating the preemption issue at the STB, or similar litigation in other forums, presents substantial risks. In other words, the STB could conclude that the State does not have authority to regulate the LVRT Project through Act 250.
In an effort to limit the State’s exposure, and the potential loss of certain conditions currently held within the Act 250 Permit, the AGs office has been negotiating a path to resolve this matter. The conditional Settlement Agreement (Agreement) between VAST and the State puts aside Act 250 jurisdiction, and in exchange, VAST will agree to an amendment to its current lease with VTrans that would include the substantive conditions from the current Permit. There is also agreement between the parties that the remaining state permits currently in place are still valid and required components of the Project now, and into the future.
We have also negotiated a clause to the Agreement that would allow us to post the proposal on our website and to take comments on the Agreement from the public for 30 days. Following the comment period, we could either propose changes to, or withdraw from, the Agreement."
It is the collective view of the State – The Attorney General’s Office, VTrans and the NRB – that the Agreement offers an outcome that strikes a fair balance between preserving the protections of the current Permit (Via incorporation into the VTrans lease) and recognizing the important value of the LVRT as a source for recreation, tourism and economic benefits in Central and Northern Vermont.
Locke states: VAST is very happy to have reached this Agreement with the Natural Resources Board (NRB) and VTrans. As mentioned, the LVRT should be exempt from ACT 250 through the Federal Railbanking program. Those that steward these trails actually do more good by properly maintaining them and their use is a benefit to Vermont as a place of recreation, wellness and education.
Within this Agreement, VAST will still be obligated to follow Vermont environmental laws and we have a perfect track record regarding the work on the LVRT. This was also another reason the NRB and VTrans worked on this settlement together with us. In addition, VAST alone has spent two million dollars to convert the trail sections that are open. VAST generates $500 million dollars a year in economic impact to Vermont and owes much of this to our over 8000 landowners, including State and Federal, that allow VAST winter trails on their property.
About the Trail: The LVRT is a four-season recreation destination. This spring conversion of the 93-mile historic rail bed across northern Vermont moved into a new phase. The Vermont Association of Snow Travelers’ lease agreement with the Vermont Agency of Transportation to convert and steward the LVRT was renewed for an additional 10 years. Under this agreement, VTrans will provide 80% of the $12-$15 million construction funding necessary to complete the trail. This is contingent upon that VAST raising the remaining 20% from other sources. Consequently, in April we announced a $3 million capital campaign.
What does this mean for the trail?
Currently, the LVRT is under the jurisdiction of ACT 250 but is only permitted to restore the first Phase of the trail. This means once we finish Phase 1C in Franklin County, we would have to go back through the ACT 250 process before we can build Phases 2 or 3 delaying the completion of the project potentially by years.
How would this change things?
Without the regulatory burden of the ACT 250 permit, we will be able to continuing rehabilitating the railbed to the same high standards sooner and with more flexibility. We will continue working with our partners at the Vermont Agency of Transportation, Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, US Army Corps of Engineers, Federal Highway Administration, and others to obtain and adhere to our permits and continue our stewardship of this wonderful resource.
How can I help?
We need your support! Please let the NRB know how much this trail means to you, your community, and to Vermont as a whole. Comments can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "Comment regarding the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail". Further information on the Lease Amendment and Settlement Agreement can be found at http://nrb.vermont.gov/notice-lamoille-valley-rail-trail. We are still working hard on our capital Campaign to raise the remaining funds to complete this amazing project. Please let the NRB know how much you support the LVRT and please make a donation to help us finish this trail!
On Friday, July 14th several people gathered on the Mt. Vernon Street Bridge in St. Johnsbury to celebrate the bank’s support of the LVRT project. Passumpsic was the first corporate supporter of the conversion of the old railroad line to a 4-season multi-purpose recreational trail. A new bronze plaque (shown above) has been installed on the bridge.
The event was hosted by Cindy Locke, VAST Executive Director. She thanked the bank for helping get the project launched in 2013 with a groundbreaking ceremony kicking off construction of the trail’s 15 mile easternmost section. Cindy introduced bank president James Kisch who extolled the LVRT’s multiple community and regional benefits.
Senator Jane Kitchel of Danville, Vice Chair of the Senate
Transportation Department, also spoke about the importance of the LVRT -- owned by all Vermont residents. Erica
Campbell, a member of the Outreach Staff in the Office of U.S. Senator Bernie
Sanders, read a letter from the senator.
St. Johnsbury was represented by Town Manager Chad Whitehead and Vice Chair
of the Danville Selectboard, Ken Linsley also attended.
Barre, VT, June 27, 2017– The Vermont Association of Snow Travelers (VAST), is hosting a bridge dedication with Passumpsic Savings Bank at the Mount Vernon Street Bridge in St. Johnsbury on Friday July 14, 2017 at 10:30am. This is a proud moment for all of those involved with converting the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail (LVRT) into what will become Vermont’s top four-season recreation and heritage destination. We hope community members will join us. This event is being held to thank Passumpsic Savings Bank for its early commitment to this important project that will affect so many communities in Vermont.
Last week Gov, Phil Scott announced the creation of the
Vermont Outdoor Recreation Economic Collaorative, a panel of state officials,
business owners and non-profit leaders.
To learn more about the VOREC see
LVRT Project Manager Shane Prisby was appointed to the 15-member task force. Shane joined the VAST staff in 2015 and is responsible for overseeing construction and maintenance of the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail. The VOREC is an effort to bolster economic activity around outdoor recreation in Vermont.
Our goal is to make the LVRT the #1 year-round tourist attraction in the state of Vermont. With one third of the trail completed, it is already benefitting our local economy by attracting tourists and outdoor recreation enthusiasts from outside the state, as well as from other countries.